Early Childhood Education

Piaget, Jean (1896-1980)

 

Jean Piaget is often believed to have been a Swiss psychologist, but psychology for him was only a means of studying epistemological questions scientifically. For centuries, epistemologists had debated questions such as “How do we know what we think we know?” and Piaget insisted that these questions should be answered scientifically rather than by philosophical speculation. His doctorate from the University of Neuchatel (1918) was in natural sciences with a dissertation on the mollusks of Valais. This training in zoology led him to study knowledge from a perspective that encompassed all animals’ adaptation to their environment. This perspective is what took him to psychology, to try to explain the development of human knowledge by looking for parallels with children’s process of acquiring knowledge.

As Piaget said in Piaget on Piaget (1977), his theory is almost always misunderstood. “Some think I am an empiricist.... Others think I am a neo-maturationist or even an innatist.. .. But I am a constructivist,” he said. (The term constructivism, too, later led to confusion because there are many kinds of constructivisms.)

Piaget’s opposition to empiricism is especially important for early childhood education, which has long been dominated by empiricist thinking. Empiricists believe, in essence, that human beings acquire knowledge by internalizing it directly from the external world through the senses. As a constructivist, Piaget proved that human beings create their own knowledge from the inside, constantly modifying it by interacting with people and objects. Human knowledge is organized through a logico-mathematical framework that takes many years for each individual to construct, he said, and human beings see in the environment only what their own logico-mathematical organization enables them to see. This theory was sketched in The Construction of Reality in the Child (1937/1954) and elaborated in more than sixty books.

Piaget was acutely aware that science only describes and explains phenomena. He was careful to say that the application of science to practical problems like education was beyond the scope of his work. By thus limiting his concerns to the description and explanation of knowledge, he gave to educators a scientific foundation for their art. Just as medicine is an art based on scientific explanations of illnesses, he said, education must become an art based on a scientific explanation of how children learn (Piaget, 1948/1973). By limiting his work to the description and explanation of knowledge, he also enabled educators to understand the scientific revolution his theory brought to behaviorism. Just as the heliocentric theory revolutionized the geocentric theory by extending the scope of the old theory and turning it upside down, Piaget’s constructivism extended the scope of behaviorism and turned it upside down. As a biologist, he said that all animals (including human beings) adapt to reward and punishment, but human beings are much more complicated than lower animals.

Part of Piaget’s constructivism concerns children’s moral development (Piaget, 1932). He made a distinction between the morality of heteronomy and the morality of autonomy. The former is the morality of obedience to ready-made rules and people in authority taught through reward and punishment-a morality compatible with behaviorism. The morality of autonomy, on the other hand, is the morality of each individual making his or her own decisions by taking relevant factors into account. Piaget showed with evidence that all children begin by being heteronomous but that some are raised to become increasingly autonomous. When asked why it was bad to lie, for example, young, heteronomous children replied, “Because you get punished,” and when Piaget asked if it would be all right to lie if one were not punished, these children answered “Yes.” More autonomous children replied, on the other hand, that lying is bad because people wouldn’t be able to believe each other if they lied. Piaget was not an educator, but he explained how some adults foster the development of autonomy in children. His theory thus has much to offer for the advancement of education.

Further Readings: Piaget, Jean (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Kegan Paul. Piaget, Jean. (1952). Jean Piaget. In Edwin G. Boring, Herbert S. Longfeld, Heinz Werner, and R. M. Yerkes, eds., A history of psychology in autobiography. Vol. IV. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, pp. 237-256; Piaget, Jean (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books. Originally published 1937; Piaget, Jean. (1971). Biology and knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Originally published 1967. Piaget, Jean. (1973). To understand is to invent. New York: Viking. Originally published 1948. Piaget, Jean (1977). Piaget on Piaget. New Haven, CT: Yale University Media Design Studio. Piaget, Jean, and Barbel Inhelder (1969). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books. Originally published 1966.

Constance Kamii